Back to the state of nature


US commando raids in Libya and Somalia show American power, and its limits, where anarchy rules after state destruction. 

Recent events in Libya and Somalia have brought into focus some of the grimmest aspects of destroyed state structures, and consequences thereof. In Tripoli, US commandos seized Abu Anas al-Liby, al-Qaeda’s man described as a mastermind of the 1998 American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. In the Somali coastal town of Barawe, an attack by American commandos failed to kill or capture the leader of al-Shabab, Ahmed Abdi Godane, and the Americans were forced to withdraw.

Several days after came the audacious kidnapping and detention of the Libyan Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, by armed men in the capital. Zeidan was later released, but together these events inform us a good deal about failing states.

Coming immediately after the Westgate massacre of shoppers in Nairobi, the US commando raids were certainly dramatic, exhibiting America’s ability to project military power in distant lands where order is fragile. The raids enabled the Secretary of State John Kerry to proclaim that they, meaning terrorists, “can run but they can’t hide” – words that echoed the language used during the George W. Bush presidency in the previous decade.

However, Kerry’s remarks also reflected the new reality after Iraq and Afghanistan – reality in which the world’s sole hegemon, the United States, is no longer capable of staying and nation-building.

America has been forced to change warfare. Its goal now is to economise in terms of money, and reduce its military casualties. Libya and Somalia illustrate this reality, but the new type of warfare also involves risks. After America’s commando operation in Tripoli, Libya demanded that Washington explain the attack on Libyan territory, insisting that any Libyan citizen should be prosecuted in Libya. The United States is surely not going to heed that demand.

There are dangers, however, as the kidnapping of Libya’s prime minister in his own capital has shown. In a country divided into many fiefdoms under the control of rival warlords, America’s seizure of al-Liby, and his flight out of Libya, may encourage potential recruits.

The Western “humanitarian” military intervention in Libya on behalf of the anti-Gaddafi forces two years ago has clearly brought a string of unwelcome consequences. Gaddafi’s warnings that al-Qaeda was behind the Libyan uprising, whose success would make the country a hub of the organization, were dismissed as propaganda. Gaddafi’s fears were, in part, based on a long history of repression under his own regime, and his cooperation with western governments in the “war on terror”. Libya today shows that his warnings had some merit.

The reasons of al-Liby’s capture by the Americans go beyond the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Tanzania. Washington’s concerns include expansion of al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Libya – and radical fighters, weapons and expertise reaching extremist groups in Syria, enlarging the threat to Western interests in the region. Libya after Gaddafi has become a key source of weaponry to armed groups in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, Mali and other countries which are unstable.

The collapse of order in Libya is part of a phenomenon seen far and wide in the region. From Afghanistan to the Arab world, including Libya and its North African neighbours, and from Somalia in the east to Nigeria in the west of the African continent, a growing number of states have suffered catastrophic failures. Still others are on the edge.

There is a sense of return to Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature (Leviathan 1651) in which legitimate governance and positive law are absent. Hobbes said that in such a state there is “no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

The development of conditions which are akin to Hobbes’ 17th century nightmare is a remarkable occurrence. The peculiarities of each failing state may vary today. The trigger of upheaval may be unique. The victor and the vanquished, and the scale of lawlessness, may be different. But the pattern is consistent.

Often, that pattern involves a population revolting against despotism or dictatorship, prompting external players to enter the conflict, escalation of violence and breakdown of institutions that leads to a state of nature. It is a condition in which people live without a common power which keeps them in awe, self-preservation is their only goal, and they are in a state called war.

The end of World War II in 1945, and freedom for old colonies thereafter, generated relief, happiness and excitement, but there were to be other consequences, most seriously the Cold War. The Germans and the Japanese were defeated. Instead, the Americans and the Soviets emerged as new global masters, and the competition for resources and influence continued.

For more than four decades, a tenuous peace existed in Europe, but savage proxy wars were fought in other continents. The aim was to control resources, and land and sea routes for trade. After World War II, the Cold War fuelled regional conflicts along the Silk Road, the Persian Gulf, the Suez Canal and in the Indian Ocean while Europe enjoyed a shaky peace. The Soviet Union’s demise as a superpower, marking the end of the Cold War around 1990, was thought to end the era of destructive wars. Today, such claims would be a misrepresentation of history.


The illusion of American exceptionalism

AL JAZEERA, September 18, 2013

Despite Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, the idea of American exceptionalism remains embedded in the US psyche. 

In his struggle for Congressional approval to launch an attack on Syria, President Obama once again invoked American exceptionalism that puts America above the rest, and bequeaths to it the right, and the duty, to fix things.

Using superlatives as befits such occasions, he told Americans that the United States had been “the anchor of global security” for seven decades. And he claimed that not only does it mean “forging international agreements” ­- it also means “enforcing” them. Further, as “Commander-in-Chief … and the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy”, Obama spoke of America’s heavy “burden of leadership” that has made the world a “better place”.

In his 1830s masterpiece Democracy in America, French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville described the position of Americans as “exceptional” ­for their “strictly puritanical origin, exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit”. America’s role in the 20th century, particularly in WWII and the Cold War, ascertained its status as the most powerful nation. Neoconservative thinkers and policymakers, somewhat prematurely, started to use terms like the “New American Century” and “American empire”. However, while claims of US exceptionalism meaning the world’s most lethal military power may be credible, assertions of exceptionalism in other respects are open to challenge.

Liberty as an element of exceptionalism is not unique in America’s case, either meaning the freedom to act or the absence of coercion, as 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill articulated in his work On Liberty. One has to read US history with a critical eye to appreciate the limits of freedom as well as the presence of coercion. Egalitarianism as a political doctrine may be enshrined in America’s constitutional documents, but claims of equality of individuals in terms of political, economic, social and civil rights hardly stand up to scrutiny. From slavery to modern America, numerous examples show that the case for egalitarianism is weak at best.

Individualism fares rather better, but still we witness a phenomenon called “the tyranny of the majority” which de Tocqueville warned against in the 1830s. Privilege and elitism in politics, military and business are so widespread in the US, as in Europe and elsewhere, that the case for populism as an essential ingredient of exceptionalism is difficult to sustain. Laissez-faire economics and globalisation in the form of completely free markets really never existed. When there are fewer regulations there is coercion by those with power making and imposing their own rules. So what is exceptional about US exceptionalism?

The truth is that other countries claim exceptionalism of their own: Britain for its role as an imperial power; France for liberty, fraternity and equality since its own revolutionary period in the late 18th century; Greece, which traces its roots to ancient history when it was the cradle of Western civilisation and the birthplace of democracy, Western philosophy and literature; indeed other cradles of civilisation, Egypt, China, India; and the Soviet Union for mass industrialisation and full employment. The list goes on. America is not the only “shinning city upon a hill” – it is rather more crowded over there. Alas, they all come with a dark side that warrants reflection and self-examination.

The story of America’s rise as the undisputed global hegemon runs through the 20th century, and a series of savage wars. The Allied victory over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in WWII was one high point, from which two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, emerged. However, in a devastated but exceedingly militarised world there was going to be only one hegemon in the end.

That point arrived around 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet empire, but not before four decades of vicious regional wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Angola, Mozambique, and in Central and South America. The Americans and the Soviets both suffered setbacks in individual conflicts, but the US was the last hegemon standing.

Imperial Britain lost its colonies in years starting immediately after WWII, becoming a relatively minor power, but continued to punch above its weight. London’s close liaison with Washington, and its ability to influence US policy and actions at crucial times, gave successive British governments power to serve their international ambitions by proclaiming a “special relationship” with the US.

From the American CIA and British SIS intelligence plot which overthrew Iran’s democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, to being an integral part of America’s worldwide military-intelligence network in the 21st century, the UK’s crucial, often secretive, role during the Cold War and the post-Soviet world deserves critical examination. Britain’s conduct helps to explain America’s own behaviour.

But ultimate triumph leaves the victor with euphoria and hubris. The sense of being the global master promotes a state of mind which becomes addicted to self-worshipping and misinterpreting others. Assertions of exceptionalism humiliate and radicalise, and often do not recognise the extent of resistance they produce. These are some of the lessons of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, three major conflicts involving great powers in the last six decades.

In the end, though, there comes a point when even the unconquerable, the “exceptional”, must accept that the tide has turned, and a new quest for consent must begin. What happens in coming weeks and months will indicate whether we are at such a juncture.


The consequences of Cameron’s Syria defeat

AL JAZEERA, September 1, 2013

Parliament’s rejection of Syria intervention will have important repercussions in Britain as well as abroad.

Cameron on Syria

Cameron makes a point

The defeat of British Prime Minister David Cameron in Parliament over his plan for “humanitarian intervention” in Syria to “protect civilians from President Assad’s chemical attacks” is one of the most significant parliamentary votes in recent years.

It means that Cameron, one of the most aggressive advocates for military intervention, has been prevented from participating in any United States-led operation in Syria. The divergence between London and Washington on this matter has echoes of the 1960s, when Prime Minister Harold Wilson successfully rebuffed President Lyndon Johnson’s pressure to send British troops to Vietnam. Some writers have gone all the way back to 1782 and the American war of independence in search of a parallel.

A defeat of this magnitude has many consequences for foreign and domestic policies, as well as for Cameron’s own authority. The atmosphere before the debate was poisoned by extraordinary behaviour outside Parliament. As the prospect of defeat became distinct in the hours before the vote, expletives were used against the opposition Labour Party leader, Edward Miliband, in private news briefings. They originated from the prime minister’s official residence and the Foreign Office.

In an ill-tempered phone call, Cameron accused Miliband of siding with Russia and giving succour to Vladimir Putin. Such low punches were bound to unite the opposition, and alienate the undecided, and even friends, as seen in the parliamentary vote and after.

Immaturity and misjudgement

The use of raw language by unnamed people close to the prime minister reflects the degree of the government’s immaturity and misjudgement of the mood in Parliament and outside. The doubters included many in his own party and his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats: Thirty Conservative and nine Liberal Democrat MPs voted against the government. Some ministers missed the vote. It showed how divided Cameron’s troops were, how high the stakes became, how desperate the battle to win, somehow, anyhow – and why the atmosphere turned so unpleasant.

It was largely Prime Minister Cameron’s own making, for he and his hawkish Foreign Secretary William Hague were the two leading architects of the policy on Syria. Together, they had pushed an unsure President Obama to an interventionist position. Cameron and Hague had persuaded the White House to intervene in Libya in 2011. They almost succeeded in doing so again on Syria, before the British Parliament stopped them. By then, however, they had walked Obama far enough not to be able to reverse the US position without appearing politically impotent.

Cameron recalled Parliament to debate Britain’s participation in the false hope, as it turned out, of getting the MPs’ backing for intervention in Syria. Assertions of Britain playing its essential role as befits a “major power on the world stage” were heard again and again.

Cameron and Hague hopped from one justification to another during the debate in the House and outside: The ban on chemical weapons has to be upheld; Britain cannot sit idly by while innocent civilians are slaughtered; Britain has a responsibility to protect; the United Nations Security Council does not matter; we do not plan regime change, but Assad must be punished.

When the crunch came, Cameron and Hague failed to deliver. Their arguments were vague and predictable. Their legal justification was far from compelling and unconvincing to many. Their assertions that Britain was already certain of the culpability of Bashar al-Assad, although the UN inspectors had yet to decide whether chemical weapons had been used, sounded bizarre.

Why was the “use of chemical weapons” in Syria’s civil war – the “red line” – unacceptable while mass killing by all sides, abduction, torture and forced expulsion of civilians were not? Absurdities of this kind in making the case for intervention are there for all to see. There will be no UN Security Council approval or NATO umbrella – instead, there may be only a “coalition of the willing” like the US-led invasion against Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Cameron exhibited too much hubris and undisguised eagerness to look like a war leader in the mould of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair – who is a much diminished figure in Britain today after his role in the “War on Terror”. The evidence presented by Cameron to Parliament failed to convince members, who knew public opinion was strongly opposed to Britain’s involvement in another war. Blair’s advocacy for intervention in Syria reminded many people of Iraq.

Domestic fallout

Britain’s appetite for punching above its weight has come to an end. One commentator on the left said thatBritain’s illusion of empire was over. The Economist, the pillar of the right-wing British establishment, described Cameron’s defeat on its website as “The vote of shame“, and the Conservative-Liberal coalition is now deeply traumatised as accusations and counter-accusations abound.

For all this, the oposition Labor leader Miliband deserves credit. He is not like left-wing Labour politicians of the past, offering an alternative to neoliberal militarism. It is a welcome change that is good for democracy.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives must try to rebuild their party and the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the Conservative-led government, face an existential threat. Having sacrificed their principles while in power, the Liberal Democrats will face a tough election next time around.

In an open display of bitterness, former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Paddy Ashdown - now a party grandee - said he was ashamed after the vote on Syria. The Guardian was right to rebuke him for lecturing the nation. On the contrary, the newspaper declared: “We should feel ashamed that our instinct for legitimacy and our patriotism have been too often and too cheaply taken for granted … Britain’s mood is not never again. The mood is not now, not again, not like this.”


Syria’s escalating crisis

AL JAZEERA, August 26, 2013

Excessive ideological zeal, immoderate sincerity and determination to fight to the finish are fuelling Syria’s crisis. 

After several days of dilly-dallying and international pressure, the Syrian government has agreed to permita team of United Nations experts to visit rebel-held suburbs of Damascus – scene of an apparent chemical attack last week. One immediate consequence has been to overshadow all previous chemical attacks which the UN inspectors had gone there to investigate. The debate in the western media and official circles has turned to the latest atrocity – “a chemical attack” carried out by Assad forces. It is odd that politicians inLondon and Paris should be so certain before independent information was available, and the UN team was able to visit the area.

An intense propaganda battle is under way alongside Syria’s murderous war. For several days, Assad’s government was resistant to allowing UN inspectors into the area. The opposition was eager to guarantee them safe passage through parts it controls. Then the French charity Medicines Sans Frontieres (MSF) said it had reports that a neurotoxic agent was apparently used in the attack.

More than 3,500 patients had symptoms of gas poisoning, and about 350 victims had died in three hospitals that the charity supports in Damascus. The MSF director Bart Janssens was cautious in saying that he ”can neither scientifically confirm the cause … nor establish who is responsible”. But his comments probably forced the Syrian government to respond. Damascus claimed that its troops had entered “the tunnels of the terrorists” and discovered “chemical agents”. Government forces were supposed to have been busy rescuing “people who were suffocating”.

Tragedy and propaganda often are close companions in war. More reasonable voices have argued that, given the circumstances, the “burden of proof” lies with President Assad. His government had an obligation, legal and moral, to let the UN experts travel to the site, only a short drive from the centre of Damascus. Of course, the possibility of an al-Qaeda-affiliated group being responsible could not be ruled out. In a sign that some elements in the Syrian opposition had chemical agents, Turkish police were reported to have found sarin gas with members of al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda associate fighting in Syria, and had made a number of arrests last May.

Conflicting interests

A theatre of war such as Syria, with competing players, has many risks of escalation, but two are particularly potent. One is a propensity of those who are already committed to seeing only what fits their argument; the other a tendency to resort to reasoning that sounds too earnest to be objective and credible. After the experience of Iraq, those interested in truth instead of geopolitical gain should be weary of excessive ideological commitment and immoderate sincerity. For both tendencies are partly responsible for the mess in the Middle East.

Without the UN chemical weapons experts inspecting the site, questioning the parties and examining the evidence, President Assad and the opposition must expect some fingerpointing. Delays in the UN team reaching the site would not serve Assad’s interest in particular. It is known that certain poisonous agents decompose within a short time, and the longer it takes for the UN experts to gather evidence, the more diluted the evidence. Whose interest is it going to serve?

There is speculation that someone close to Bashar al-Assad may be the mastermind behind the apparent attack. This is what the Syrian opposition would like to see, for nothing less would likely persuade President Obama to order a direct military intervention.

The Independent‘s Middle East specialist Patrick Cockburn is known for his sceptical reporting about “chemical attacks” of the past. Cockburn wrote that “it is difficult to think of any action by the Damascus government more self-destructive than the Syrian army launching a massive chemical-weapons attack on rebel-held districts in its own capital. Yet the evidence is piling up that this is exactly what happened… and that the Syrian army fired rockets or shells containing poison gas which killed hundreds of people in the east of the city”. The opposition may be capable of manufacturing evidence of government atrocities, according to Cockburn, but it is highly unlikely it could do so on such a large scale as this.

An intriguing but opposite analysis came from Dan Kaszeta, a former officer of the US Army’s Chemical Corps, now a leading private consultant. Kaszeta argued that a number of vital details were missing from the video footage so far. Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (paywall), Kaszeta said, “None of the people treating casualties and photographing them are wearing any sort of chemical-warfare protective gear,” and “despite that, none of them seem to be harmed”.

Puzzling questions

In this fog of confusion, two fundamental questions remain, and they are unlikely to be answered conclusively until the UN investigations are complete. The first question concerns whether chemical weapons were indeed used; the second is about the identity of those responsible for the attack.

Let us suppose that a neurotoxic agent was used, as a respected charity like MSF has suggested. Then who carries the responsibility? Was it an act of Syria’s Baathist leadership that felt emboldened by strong Chinese and Russian opposition to Western moves to get the Security Council’s approval for military action in Syria? Or was it the work of some fringe opposition group, desperate to provoke a Western response against the Assad regime?

Did someone in Assad’s inner circle think that the mood in Washington and London had turned decisively against Islamists in the Middle East, as Egypt’s military coup and its aftermath indicated? Or did someone in the opposition believe that President Obama, under pressure from domestic hawks and Britain and France, could be forced to change his mind? Did Damascus calculate that the United States would not intervene if no Security Council approval was forthcoming? Or was there a calculation of some among the adversaries that Obama’s reluctance was temporary? Such questions will linger whatever else happens in coming days and weeks.


On Bradley Manning and America

Richard Falk writes in a guest column that originally appeared on his blog

I am posting on this blog two important texts that deserve the widest public attention and deep reflection in the United States and elsewhere. I would stress the following:

–the extraordinary disconnect between the impunity of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Yoo, and others who authorized and vindicated the practice of torture, were complicit in crimes against humanity, and supported aggressive wars against foreign countries and the vindictive rendering of ‘justice’ via criminal prosecutions, harsh treatment, and overseas hunts for Snowden and Assange, all individuals who acted selflessly out of concern for justice and the rights of citizens in democratic society to be informed about governmental behavior depicting incriminating information kept secret to hide responsibility for the commission of crimes of state and awkward diplomacy; a perverse justice dimension of the Manning case is well expressed in the statement below of the Center of Constitutional Rights “It is a travesty of justice that Manning who helped bring to light the criminality of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, is being punished while the alleged perpetrators are not even investigated.” And “We fear for the future of our country in the wake of this case.”

–the vindictive punishment of Bradley Manning, a historically stiff imprisonment for the unlawful release of classified documents, a dishonorable discharge from military service that is a permanent stain, a demotion to the lowest rank, and imprisonment for 35 years;

–the failure of the prosecution or the military judge or the national leadership to acknowledge the relevance of Manning’s obviously ethical and patriotic motivations and the extenuating circumstance of stress in a combat zone that was producing observable deteriorations in his mental health;

–an increasingly evident pattern of constructing a national security state that disguises its character by lies, secrecy, and deception, thereby undermining trust between the government and the people, creating a crisis of legitimacy; it is part of the pattern of ‘dirty wars’ fought on a global battlefield comprehensively described in Jeremy Scahill’s book with that title;

–the mounting challenge directed at President Obama to grant Manning’s request for a presidential pardon, and to reverse course with respect to the further authoritarian drift that has occurred during his time in the White House; ever since Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech when he claimed American adherence to the rule of law, it has been evident that such a commitment does not extend to high level governmental violators at home (“too important to prosecute”) or to the sovereign rights of foreign countries within the gunsights of the Pentagon or the CIA or to the crimes of America’s closest allies; international law is reserved for the enemies of Washington, especially those who resist intervention and occupation, or those who dare to be whistle-blowers or truth-tellers in such a highly charged atmosphere that has prevailed since the 9/11 attacks; the opening of Manning’s statement below suggests the relevance of such a context to the evolution of his own moral and political consciousness;

–the noted author and public intellectual, Cornel West, offered a salutation to Manning relating to his announcement about his/her gender identity shift that I wholeheartedly endorse: “My dear brother Bradley Manning – and from now on sister Chelsea Manning – I still salute your courage, honesty and decency. Morality is always deeper than the law. My presence at your trial yesterday inspires me even more!”

–read Bradley Manning’s statement and ask yourself whether this man belongs in prison for 35 years (even granting eligibility for parole in seven years), or even for a day; imagine the contrary signal sent to our citizenry and the world if Manning were to be awarded the Medal of Freedom! It is past time that we all heeded Thomas Jefferson’s urgent call for ‘the vigilance’ of the citizenry as indispensable to the maintenance of democracy.


The decisions that I made in 2010 were made out of a concern for my country and the world that we live in. Since the tragic events of 9/11, our country has been at war. We’ve been at war with an enemy that chooses not to meet us on any traditional battlefield, and due to this fact we’ve had to alter our methods of combating the risks posed to us and our way of life.

I initially agreed with these methods and chose to volunteer to help defend my country. It was not until I was in Iraq and reading secret military reports on a daily basis that I started to question the morality of what we were doing. It was at this time I realized in our efforts to meet this risk posed to us by the enemy, we have forgotten our humanity. We consciously elected to devalue human life both in Iraq and Afghanistan. When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians. Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.

In our zeal to kill the enemy, we internally debated the definition of torture. We held individuals at Guantanamo for years without due process. We inexplicably turned a blind eye to torture and executions by the Iraqi government. And we stomached countless other acts in the name of our war on terror.

Patriotism is often the cry extolled when morally questionable acts are advocated by those in power. When these cries of patriotism drown our any logically based intentions [unclear], it is usually an American soldier that is ordered to carry out some ill-conceived mission.

Our nation has had similar dark moments for the virtues of democracy—the Japanese-American internment camps to name a few. I am confident that many of our actions since 9/11 will one day be viewed in a similar light.

As the late Howard Zinn once said, “There is not a flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”

I understand that my actions violated the law, and I regret if my actions hurt anyone or harmed the <a title=”United States”. It was never my intention to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people. When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.

If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society. I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.


August 21, 2013 – Today, in response to the sentencing of Pfc. Bradley Manning, the Center for Constitutional Rights issued the following statement.

We are outraged that a whistleblower and a patriot has been sentenced on a conviction under the Espionage Act. The government has stretched this archaic and discredited law to send an unmistakable warning to potential whistleblowers and journalists willing to publish their information. We can only hope that Manning’s courage will continue to inspire others who witness state crimes to speak up.

This show trial was a frontal assault on the First Amendment, from the way the prosecution twisted Manning’s actions to blur the distinction between whistleblowing and spying to the government’s tireless efforts to obstruct media coverage of the proceedings. It is a travesty of justice that Manning, who helped bring to light the criminality of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, is being punished while the alleged perpetrators of the crimes he exposed are not even investigated.  Every aspect of this case sets a dangerous precedent for future prosecutions of whistleblowers – who play an essential role in democratic government by telling us the truth about government wrongdoing – and we fear for the future of our country in the wake of this case.

We must channel our outrage and continue building political pressure for Manning’s freedom. President Obama should pardon Bradley Manning, and if he refuses, a presidential pardon must be an election issue in 2016.


On Egypt’s turmoil

AL JAZEERA, August 14, 2013

A victim mourned

A victim mourned

The bloodbath in Egypt’s security crackdown against opponents of the military coup is truly catastrophic. Enough independent observers maintain that the crowds of protesters, including women and children, were largely peaceful, and the use of violence by the security forces was disproportionate. Egypt faces a lasting conflict with itself. The army’s repression is a shattering blow against a fledgling, and brief, democratic experiment. Muslim Brotherhood activists and other opponents of the military-backed government may feel that they have little choice except to go underground.

In a vast country so deeply split, the authorities will find it very difficult to establish total control that the military seeks. Civilian political figures cooperating with the army face isolation from sections of Egyptian society. The turmoil will be destabilising, and a serious setback against hopes for democratic change in the region. The conflict will inflame the anti-American feeling, and pose a particular challenge for the United States in the Middle East. President Obama cannot disown the Egyptian military. But Washington’s close links with the ruling military establishment in Cairo will provide further fuel to the resentment against America.

Others on the Al Jazeera panel were Mahmood Mamdani (Columbia University), John L. Esposito (Georgetown University), Phyllis Bennis (Institute of Policy Studies), Adel Iskander (Georgetown University), Mark LeVine (University of California, Irvine) and Richard Falk (Princeton University), Sarah Mousa (Georgetown University), Larbi Sadiki (Qatar University), Michael Hudson (NUS), Daniel Levy (ECFR) and Abdullah Al-Arian (Georgetown University). 

In Orwellian Egypt, a state of denial rules

AL JAZEERA, August 6, 2013

Behind the bloody conflict in Egypt is a state of denial among competing actors of each other’s place in society. 

A society in which important actors live in denial of each other’s interests and legitimacy is a society threatened by the abyss. There is ample evidence of this destructive phenomenon through the history of the Middle East, as elsewhere.

One of the biggest casualties of the phenomenon of Arab awakening was Egypt’s ruler Hosni Mubarak, whose fall in February 2011 looked like a pivotal event strong enough to accelerate democratic change across the region. Two years on, the prospects are bleak. After the recent military coup, Egypt is in the midst of a civil conflict which is bloodier and more repressive. The continuing violence and schism are more depressing than the final weeks and months of the Mubarak regime.

Authoritarian rule, rebellion and repression have shaped mindsets throughout Egypt’s social hierarchy. The collapse of Mubarak’s autocratic rule had sparked new hopes of an open and enlightened era, free of corruption and mismanagement. But those with power to control and coerce have a strong instinct to reassert themselves when they see their grip weakening. An essential feature of that instinct is to dismiss the legitimate existence and interests of others. It is by denying the legitimacy of the others that powerful actors claim their own legitimacy.

When General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the removal of a freely elected president and suspension of the constitution, the army chief’s assertion was unmistakable, and his choice of words strange in the light of recent events. The army acted, according to General al-Sisi, because Morsi “had failed to meet the demands of the Egyptian people.” This despite the fact that Mohamed Morsi had won the presidential election a year before; and a constitution had been approved. There had been complaints that the document was too Islamist and vested too much power in the presidency, but it was supported by almost a two-thirds majority of Egyptian who voted.

The constitution, no doubt, was controversial and divisive, pushed through in a rush against a vocal opposition – a minority as the referendum result showed. However, a military coup was definitely not a remedy. For when mistakes are made in a democracy, the perpetrators must be punished through the ballot box, and decisions should be altered likewise.

A military coup which deposes an elected leader and repression mean the very anti-thesis of democracy and the rule of law founded on popular consent. Both holders and contenders of power are responsible for the crisis in Egypt.

ElBaradei and expedient alliances with the army

Morsi lived in denial of forces pitted against him, to his peril. The regime entrenched now in Cairo is dismissive of Morsi, his party, his supporters and independent Egyptians who disapprove of the military coup. Crowds of protestors are treated harshly. Orders of the new regime that opposition crowds must disperse face defiance despite heavy-handed tactics. Protesters are accused of threatening security. Media outlets have been forced to close. General al-Sisi has all but declared his own “war on terror” and the interior ministry has announced the resurrection of the Mubarak-era state security services.

The army has been empowered to arrest citizens, thus assuming the role of internal policing. General al-Sisi may formally be defence minister and army chief under a civilian president and a civilian prime minister. In truth, it is he who rules Egypt with an iron fist. The rest is a façade, giving cover to the new draconian order.

Erstwhile champions of democracy, identified with Egypt’s liberal and secular forces, find themselves on the spot, not least Mohamed ElBaradei, occupying the post of vice president following the Morsi government’s overthrow. Few would have thought that ElBaradei, ex-chief of the UN’s Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and, to many, a symbol of the conscience of Egyptians involved in a painful struggle for democratic freedoms, would be sitting at the pinnacle of power, installed at the military’s pleasure. But the bizarre has happened.

The future of civilian politicians making accommodations with military dictators is seldom promising. In Egypt, the masses have despised officials of past dictatorial regimes. The schism in the wake of the recent coup is evidence of something similar. It has happened elsewhere, perhaps most notably in Pakistan under General Ziaul Haq, who was killed when his plane was bombed in 1988, and more recently General Pervez Musharraf, who is in detention and facing multiple charges.

The armed forces have ruled Egypt for six decades and still look invincible. It is nonetheless difficult to predict the future when a country is so polarised. Suggestions that Egyptian society is split between the pro- and anti-Morsi camps, or between supporters of Morsi and the military, are too simplistic. The conflict is far more complex and multi-layered. Many opponents of the deposed president are protesting now that the military is back in power.

Orwellian Egypt

Paradoxes are many in Egypt. President Morsi won the election and the Muslim Brotherhood gained legitimacy under the law, but then persisted with constitutional manoeuvres which, to many, looked like creeping power grab. Morsi concluded, unwisely, that the Egyptian military establishment had been tamed after some top military officers were removed.

The Brotherhood in government failed to realise that the army was down but by no means out. The articulate minority of liberals and secularists was not going to be silent. Egypt had just stepped out of a totalitarian era, but still was prone to slipping back in. An important Arab country such as Egypt in a region of great strategic interest for foreign powers was unlikely to be left to its people to make choices. For there is evidence that the military coup happened under America’s close watch.

The Obama administration was in discomfort at Egypt’s elections, and can barely contain its relief mixed with delight at the overthrow of Morsi by the military. Ensuring that Egypt remained under US influence, by keeping the army on its side, was far more important than democracy. The primacy of Egypt’s usefulness over what was morally right or wrong was all important. So the notion of a “democratic” coup was born, and hailed by the American Secretary of State John Kerry, who claimed that the soldiers were “restoring democracy” when they overthrew Morsi. Kerry’s statement was an exercise in absurdity.

One is reminded of George Orwell, author of the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, who said, “It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it. Consequently, the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy.” Orwell’s words have a strange resemblance with Egypt in 2013.